I was recently looking at old syllabuses from my introductory graduate course on visual communication, and I noticed an interesting trend: the rate of change from one year’s syllabus to the next one’s has been much more rapid in recent years than in the past. The major reason for this trend is that visual media themselves have been changing so rapidly in recent years as a result of digitization. Moreover, to a considerable extent these changes have entailed genuine innovations in the forms and functions of visual media. In other words, while some developments in digital media are mainly concerned with doing a better job in tasks that older, analog media were not very good at (for example, 3D movies), digitization has also enabled visual media to do some things that analog media couldn’t do at all.
What are the most significant developments in the digital transformation of visual media? Opinions undoubtedly differ, depending partly on one’s time-frame. In the 1990s, when Photoshop was still new, the manipulation of photographic truth was a major focus of research in visual communication. Today, photo-manipulation software is a mature technology, and, while the concerns it gave rise to have by no means gone away, the most eye-catching changes in the visual media landscape seem to be happening elsewhere.
From my perspective, there are at least five big developments whose impact is still very uncertain – and, therefore, very deserving of closer scrutiny. In my view, these five developments will need to figure very prominently in the future work of visual communication researchers if our field is to keep up with the explosively rapid evolution of digital media.
For more than a decade, digital animators have been working towards the attainment of two major milestones in the development of visual media: first, the achievement of “perfect photorealism” – i.e., the ability to mimic not just the momentary appearance of visual reality (as in present-day digital images) but also its appearance over time (without relying on motion capture, which is essentially a relic of traditional cinematography); second, the ability to simulate the appearance (over time) of actual people, such as deceased actors. These developments have received some attention from media scholars, but it may be fair to say that, for now, the most promising lines of inquiry actually come from outside of communication, in studies of people’s responses to humanoid robots and visual displays. Research on the much-discussed but little-understood “uncanny valley” phenomenon is a good example of this area of scholarship
As computers and, hence, digital media have become cheaper, aspects of image creation that previously required substantial resources have become increasingly affordable and accessible, resulting in a democratization of visual production. This development is evident not only in the ubiquity of photographic and video devices, but also in the increasing ease with which photographs and video can be manipulated. (The emergence of consumer-level editing software in the late 1990s was a particularly noteworthy innovation for anyone who had previously had the extremely cumbersome experience of editing in celluloid-based film.) While there is a growing body of good scholarly writing about the dissemination of nonprofessional images (which I will refer to further in the next paragraph), there is surprisingly little systematic research on everyday people’s manipulation of images.
As I have implied above, I think it is useful to distinguish the democratization of visual distribution, for which, of course, we can thank the Web, from the democratization of production. The radical transformation in the distribution of new visual media is one of two items (out of my list of five topics) that have already been written about quite widely by media scholars. There are several books about YouTube, and a growing number of studies of Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, and other platforms.
The fourth item on my list (although, chronologically, it is actually the first) has to do with the emergence of videogames as a major visual medium. This phenomenon can be seen as part of a broader evolution in audiovisual technology, allowing the users of that technology (gamers, etc.) to project a controllable visual avatar of themselves into a virtual environment. In contrast to the previous two items on my list, the emergence of this type of avatar represents a qualitative (i.e, not just quantitative) break with the past. There is nothing in previous visual media that can give the user the same experience of an externally viewable but internally controlled projection of one’s self. Research on the visual aspects of avatars suggests that they can have profound implications. For example, they can have enduring effects on gamers’ or VR users’ aggressiveness, sociality, and attitudes towards people who are demographically different from their real selves.
The final item on my list is also related to games and other media that provide their users with the experience of interactive virtual environments. The ability to affect a virtual environment through one’s own actions represents another significant break with the past history of visual media. The purposive use of virtual environments as means of low-consequence training for high-consequence real-world activities (e.g., flight simulation, practice surgery) has been studied quite extensively by researchers from a wide variety of disciplines, including communication. Moreover, communications researchers have also devoted considerable attention to the more nebulous cultural consequences that may flow from people’s experiences in virtual worlds. All the same, I think it’s safe to say that to date we have barely glimpsed what lies ahead in this area of visual media. Perhaps more than in any of the other areas on this list, the technology and the social practices associated with this area seem to be changing more rapidly than our projections. PM